Economy expands by 26.3%

Or at least that is what the national accounts tell us.  The CSO have published the National Income and Expenditure Accounts for 2015.  These show that real GDP expanded by 26.3 per cent in 2015 and real GNP grew by 18.7 per cent.  Do these numbers mean anything?  It is hard to know.

Looking at the expenditure approach the big real changes were in investment (+26.7%), exports (+34.4%) and imports (+21.7%).

In nominal terms, exports in 2015 were put at €317.2 billion, up from €219.8 billion in 2014. Exports minus imports was €81.2 billion compared to €34.6 billion in 2014.  We would usually expect most of this to feed through to the outflow of factor payments but net factor income from abroad only went from –€29.7 billion in 2014 to –€53.2 billion in 2015.  That means most of the improvement in net exports also contributed to GNP but the “gross” part of this seems to be important.

The reason is that there seems to be an awful lot happening on the asset side of the national accounts.  The nominal provision for depreciation rose from €30.9 billion in 2014 to €61.6 billion in 2015.  It looks like a large part of the increase in gross value added in 2015 of €60 billion went to cover the depreciation of assets.

The biggest source of the additional value added was in the Industry sector which rose 97.8 per cent in real terms over in the year (and in nominal terms rose €50 billion).  The CSO don’t provide a sectoral breakdown for this (they usually do) but it is probably a safe guess that a large part of it is related to the chemical and pharmaceutical sector.

One explanation is that a number of sectors saw MNCs move intangible assets onshore.  This increases gross value added in Ireland as there are no longer outbound royalty payments.  There is also a once-off increase in investment when the asset moves here (but the growth effect of this is offset by the import of the asset).

It is also worth noting that the increase in value added isn’t necessarily related to goods manufactured in Ireland.  The CSO’s External Trade data, which only include goods that physically leave Ireland, shows €111 billion of goods exports from Ireland in 2015.  Goods exports in the national accounts are done on a different basis (where ownership rather than location matters) and show exports of €195 billion.  A large part of the value added from these exports is accounted for in Ireland.

So we have a large increase in gross value added but this doesn’t fully feed through to increases in wages and/or profits.  Non-agricultural wages and salaries rose from €67.7 billion in 2014 to €71.5 billion in 2015.

The domestic trading profits of companies rose from €52.3 billion in 2014 to €74.4 billion in 2015.  This €22 billion increase roughly corresponds the increased outflow of net factor income.  Profits before depreciation would be up by even more but a lot of that went against the fall in the value of the assets.

But even then the value on onshored assets can’t account for all of this.  Most of the increase in investment can be attributed to research and development which in nominal terms rose from €9.6 billion in 2014 to €21.3 billion in 2015.  It is likely that most of this increase is due to once-off purchases of intangible assets rather than ongoing expenditure on R&D.

There may also be impacts from the aircraft leasing sector.  Although the investment figures show a small decrease in investment in transport equipment in 2015, a balance-sheet effect may have resulted in increased aircraft assets being accounted for in Ireland.  Gross value added in aircraft leasing may be high but depreciation of the asset would again consume a lot of this.

The CSO highlighted this and slide 6 of their presentation on the figures shows that Ireland’s gross capital stock rose by about €300 billion in 2015, from €750 billion to €1,050 billion.  Even with today’s inflated figures this corresponds to an increase in the gross capital stock equivalent to 120 per cent of GDP in just one year. Investment in 2015 was equivalent to just over 20 per cent of GDP so these balance-sheet effects impacted the capital stock to the tune of almost 100 per cent of GDP.

The best we can do to strip out all of this madness is probably to look at net national income which excludes the provision for depreciation from all assets and accounts for net factor income from abroad.

Net National Income at Market Prices grew by 6.5 per cent in 2015 which is probably somewhere around where “the Irish economy” grew at in 2015 rather than the 26.3 per cent that “the economy in Ireland” grew by.

The rise and fall of social partnership: do governments need trade unions?

During the 1980’s one of the core economic problems facing the Irish government was minimising strikes and controlling wage inflation. The rise in inflation was widely attributed to individual trade unions using their collective bargaining strength to push up wages at the expense of competitiveness. This policy continued despite the rising unemployment crisis. Over 50% of the workforce was unionised, and 70% of it was covered by some sort of collective bargaining agreement. Crucially, unions were organised in the core export sectors of the economy.

From 1981 to 1986 the Fine Gael/Labour government employed a simple strategy: they ignored unions. They excluded them from policymaking and promoted firm-level wage setting. This was fine in theory, but in practice, it meant chaos. It meant that a fragmented union movement, with little or no coordination from the ICTU, continued its strategy of wage militancy. Unemployment soared. Spending on social welfare increased by over 200%. In the decade from 1980 to 1990, there were over 400,000 days lost to industrial action, one of the highest recorded in the OECD at the time. The government responded by raising income taxes. These were followed by a series of mass demonstrations, initiated by the ICTU, leading to one of the largest public mobilisations against an elected government in the history of the state.

Eventually, through engaging with the ICTU and the employer associations, the new Fianna Fail government of Charlie Haughey brokered a new centralised political deal with ICTU – key to this, was the unions’ acceptance of wage restraint in the interest of national competitiveness (to complement the gains of the 1986 currency devaluation). In return trade union leaders would only end their strategy of wage-inflation and industrial militancy if they were granted political access to the public policy levers of the state (particularly fiscal policy). The unions were off the streets, and it was the beginning of twenty years of national ‘social partnership’.

What ICTU could offer a weak government during this period was stability. It could refrain from industrial action, negotiate reform and get its members to comply with wage restraint. All of this, however, was dependent upon the ICTU having the legitimacy to be considered a representative of working people. In the 1980s, this legitimacy was generated from having a broad and inclusive membership in both the traded and non-traded sectors of the economy. But throughout the late 1990’s and 2000’s, trade union membership was increasingly narrowed to the public sector, with the implication that ICTU became a weakened social partner.

From 2008-2009, during the economic crisis, FF eviscerated social partnership and cut public sector pay twice. ICTU attempted to mobilise public opinion against government austerity. The strategy backfired. All attention focused on the rise in public sector pay from 2002, as part of the benchmarking process. Public distrust in unions jumped from 30 to 55%. Unlike 1987-1992, trade unions were increasingly perceived as a public sector interest group, lobbying government in defence of overpaid civil servants, and labour market insiders.

The weakened ability of ICTU to be considered a social partner is intimately bound up structural changes in the labour market, which have affected all western economies. Collective bargaining coverage (the percentage of workers covered by a negotiated agreement) declined from approximately 71% in 1981 to 40% in 2010. In the late 1980’s, most of the Irish export sectors, and the commercial semi-state sectors, were highly unionised. In 2011 the 400,000 days lost to industrial unrest had dropped to 3,700, the lowest ever recorded.

What does all his mean? ICTU has lost the stick of protest to threaten government and the carrot of problem solving. Overall trade union density has declined from 35 per cent in 2007 to 27 percent in 2015, an all time historic low. In the private sector, density has declined from 24 per cent to 16 per cent. In the public sector, density has remained strong at over 60 per cent, whilst collective bargaining remains at least 85 per cent. Unions in the public sector are simply too strong to be ignored.

Outside the public sector, it has been assumed that the government no longer need private sector unions to guarantee national competitiveness, or to ensure industrial and political stability. The recent LUAS strike, however, challenges this assumption. Previously this strike would have been solved within the institutions of social partnership. SIPTU shop stewards would have been brought into line for breaking a national agreement. Much like the 80’s – in the absence of a strong ICTU, and a national process to solve wage and labour market problems, individual unions are now free to pursue their own self-interest without constraint.

This creates a strange paradox. In the context of EMU currency constraints, the only policy instrument left to government, aimed at coordinating cost competitiveness, is wage and labour market policy. During the crisis, collective bargaining was re-centralised in the public sector and de-centralised to the market in most of the private sector. But contrary to a lot of neoliberal market assumptions, it was the centralised institutions of collective bargaining in the public sector that made possible a coordinated “internal devaluation”. In the absence of the public sector agreements (Croke Park and Haddington Road, in particular), it is highly questionable whether the government could have implemented their fiscal adjustment policies whilst retaining social peace.

This observation complements a large body of research in comparative political economy, which suggests that coordinated wage setting, rather than the market, is better placed to generate the conditions for national competitiveness. Think Germany.



‘Taking back control’? Britain after Brexit

A fortnight after the British referendum on EU membership, Britain is still in turmoil. Some of the negative lessons are all too clear: don’t try to solve party political problems by invoking existential issues; referendums are volatile and uncertain; if you must have one, get a crack team together first. But, as weary politicians are fond of saying, we are where we are.
So what is likely to happen now?
There are different views about what course of action the referendum requires; but there are also very different views about what it might mean to ‘take back control’, which was the core theme of the campaign.

Continue reading “‘Taking back control’? Britain after Brexit”

Alcohol in Ireland: A sobering report

Last month, as the UK called time on the EU, the Health Research Board (HRB) released a sobering report on the harm and cost of alcohol consumption in Ireland. Using data from the hospital in-patient reporting system, the authors examine the patterns and effects of alcohol consumption and the impact on Irish society.

The report is extensive and thorough, with headline figures, such as:

  • In 2014 Irish drinkers consumed on average 11 litres of pure alcohol, with 50% of drinkers consuming alcohol in a harmful manner. Among 36 OECD countries, Ireland has the fourth highest alcohol consumption.
  • The number of people discharged from hospital whose condition was totally attributable to alcohol rose by 82% between 1995 and 2013. Three people died each day in 2013 as a result of drinking alcohol and in 2014 one-in-three self-harm presentations were alcohol-related.
  •  In 2013, alcohol-related discharges accounted for 160,211 bed days in public hospitals – 3.6% of all bed days that year. €1.5 billion is the cost to the tax-payer for alcohol-related discharges from hospital. That is equal to €1 for every €10 spent on public health in 2012 (This excludes the cost of emergency cases, GP visits, psychiatric admissions and alcohol treatment services).The estimated cost of alcohol-related absenteeism was €41,290,805 in 2013.

The full report is here, with a summary of findings in graphical form here.

A Slow Negotiation Might Help Achieve a Better Brexit Solution

Writes Patrick Honohan for the Peterson Institute’s blog here. I’ve said a few times that the Brexit negotiations will take years (and–gasp–require immigrant labour).

Patrick’s point is well made. The sheer length of the negotiation process may give time to let the British people understand the benefits of being within a free trade area, while also managing somehow starting to solve the problems the referendum result threw up. These could be solved, arguably, by less austerity and more capital spending in areas left behind in recent decades.

Danish lessons for the UK, and in particular Northern Ireland?

Reading this article by Fintan O’Toole got me thinking about my other country, Denmark. The Kingdom of Denmark isn’t just Denmark proper, it includes two other autonomous countries as well. Only Denmark is in the EU.

Just saying.

Update: a researcher in Aalborg who actually knows something about Greenland had much the same thought as I. And they are practical people up in northern Jutland.